Everyone has an album that has stayed with them for years, even decades, a constant musical companion that grows with you as your life and perspective changes. With that in mind, Deadshirt presents Perfect Records, an ongoing series of personal essays about the albums that stuck with us and how they’ve shaped our lives.
Today, at 24, I am the same as my father when he was this age: a denim scarecrow living in Queens with more self-confidence than money. If I’m lucky, I’ll be as successful or driven or generous as he is, and I keep his hand-me-downs obsessively like totems or wards. Sometimes I entertain the notion that these shoes and leather jackets and records I’ve received or filched from his collection have tethered me to him, living a life in parallel thirty years apart. Of course I don’t mean to understate the importance of my mother to my life, especially since benefiting from her radiant adulation and limitless patience is another thing my dad and I have in common, but my father gave me The A’s.
The A’s are my single cherished undiscovered jewel of hipster esophilia, virtual unknowns who released one perfect album two years before the world would have hailed them as the vanguard of the New Wave, and a second release which was lost in the sea of early 80’s power pop. There’s precious little information available about them, defying my natural tendency to collect every possible fact about things I love and forcing me to think of the art without the lens of the artist. Every song is driven by Ramonesean energy under the hood of glossy Elvis Costello instrumentation and a trunk full of DEVO-style satire, finished with a racing stripe of hyperbolically bratty and twisted vocals. When the rest of my pedestrian taste in rock was routinely met with groans of displeasure from the tattooed maenad I last idolized, The A’s pulled the emergency brake on her rolling eyes.
The song I included on a mix for her is the first track on their first album and should be the first one you listen to. “After Last Night” is an immediate dive into everything that makes The A’s great. Mixed in stereo to mimic the band’s legendary live performance, every instrument occupies an aural lane that never overlaps with another and lets you take out and appreciate the elements of the song individually like it’s a plastic anatomy model of a heart. The bassline is as singable as the actual melody, but the lyrics are where this song becomes legendary. If there’s one big difference between Jock Rock and Nerd Rock, it’s that Jocks (Van Halen, Zep) sing about how hot girls are and how good they are at sex, while nerds (Weezer, Talking Heads) sing about how they’re lonely fuckups and crazy people. After Last Night could easily be both, ostensibly the lament of a dude who knows he fucked up the night before. The lyrics sound simple and direct, “nothing went right” last night with a girl and now the singer is bummed. We can all relate; I fuck up almost nightly. Then the first verse ends with a line that takes the whole album, and maybe all of rock, and turns it 180 degrees to show you the puppeteer behind the curtain:
So I read you the book I started to write
After last night, After last night
But you fell back asleep
…Cuz my writing’s too deep
Oh wait. Nothing went right last night because this guy is a pretentious bore who tries to smooth over relationship problems with his stupid unfinished novel, and Richard Bush is singing like a theatrical weirdo because he’s making fun of self-pitying “nice guys.” Holy shit. It makes you look at other artists to see how they could fix their lives. Hey Rivers Cuomo, maybe if you spent less time alone in a garage people would want to hang out with you. Hey Joe Jackson, She Is Really Going Out With Him because that hunk she’s with doesn’t stare out windows at people seething about how everyone is getting laid.
Honestly, it’s funny as hell. The whole album is funny as hell and I love that, satirizing brooding artist-types with subtle precision that shows songs don’t have to be Flight of the Conchords to be funny. It was a mixtape favorite for my inked-up vegan muse, though ironically we stopped seeing each other after a night when my sulky pouting drove her off. Due to the fact that I am literally tagged as pictures of steak on Facebook and she doesn’t agree that eating an animal makes you more powerful, we had always thought our romance came printed with a sell-by date, but the abrupt ending felt like seeing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time, vexed by the credits starting before Luke has a chance to save Han. I hold no ill will toward her, but I think “Winning Someone Back” is a childish goal, and even if you succeed the relationship is always tainted by what came before, and The A’s agree. In a moment that makes me laugh out loud EVERY time, the singer leaves a poem on the door of the girl he wronged, finally giving us a sample of his, uh, genius:
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly
Your eyes are blue, so is the sky
Life was so simple when we were kids
Now that we’re older… It’s more complex
Almost every track on the album shares a narrator whose self-righteous fury or frustration completely falls apart when viewed from any other angle. “Five Minutes In A Hero’s Life” is a scathing short film about toxic masculinity that’s still poignant 35 years after it was recorded. The “Five Minutes” narrator plays his guitar too loud in his apartment, accuses women of spurning him for no reason, and the preachy chorus becomes deliciously hypocritical when you realize what a chode the singer is:
Take a look at you! I can’t even call you a man
I’ll take care of you! I understand
I’m gonna be the one! A hero’s work is never done
And then he goes out and buys a gun. Since he never mentions actual crime you get left with the question of who will be on the receiving end of his vigilante activities. The neighbors who tell him to quiet down? The girl who didn’t call? The radio station that won’t play his song? Check CNN and see who he chose.
I want to be a hero. I want to take care of people, I want to be seen as The Man. But hurting people because they hurt you doesn’t make you a hero. I took out anger about being bullied on people who didn’t deserve it for a long time, relishing the power after feeling powerless and weak. My dad told me a story once about a fight he was in and I delighted in the details of the skirmish, loving the way he took revenge against someone who was mean to him. But what I missed when I was younger is that he regretted it. I had failed to see how much he hated that he’d picked this fight when he didn’t have to. It took me a while to see that heroes don’t set out to hurt people, and you gotta lift people up where you are instead of knocking them down.
Fallin in love is like fallin’ down steps:
If you do it enough, you gotta break something
Side two of The A’s is maybe one of my top five favorite SIDES of a record ever, the sort of honorific only Dylan has a synchronous list for. It starts off with “Artificial Love,” the dark twin to “After Last Night.” Recounting one or a series of sexual encounters, the singer laments the necessity of Artificial Love, the kind that won’t break your heart. The dime store Bukowski lines like “You’re just another pair of legs,” bely the way the singer is projecting his insecurities on his partner(s) saying “I’m just another phony Valentino,” or claiming her attraction to him only comes from his resemblance to one of her past lovers. It’s all spat viciously until the Queen-like backups and crooning of the chorus where he assures her that…
(Artificial Love) Is all we need
(Artificial Knives) Aren’t really sharp
(Artificial Cuts) Don’t really bleed
(Artifical Love) Won’t break our hearts
It sounds like he’s really just trying to convince himself that he means nothing to his partners and they mean nothing to him, right? Without getting into another long-winded morality play, I have a way of telling myself I’m not right for people or presenting myself as someone who’s not right for them so they can stay at arm’s length and I can preserve my autonomy. But artificial love doesn’t guarantee nobody gets hurt, and it’s naïve to think that by starving yourself and another person from affection you’re outsmarting heartbreak.
“Teenage Jerk Off” is the last must-listen. The punky guitar is overlaid with a poindextery synth line and it’s in a style I’m calling “Postberty,” rock about being a teen by 25-year-old men. It appeals to the hormonal chaos of an adolescent listener and nudges older audiences as to say “Hey, remember when we were this dumb?” The fact is that the teenage experience (being one and being around one) is terrible for everyone, and if you look back at being a teen as the best part of your life then I’m sorry you didn’t get cooler. We should forgive other people for the times in their life when they were butterflies whose cocoon was split open every day to send them to school, spilling out a goopy half-finished adult without the naïve charm of youth or the wisdom of a Grown Ass Person. “Teenage Jerk-Off” is about something every man is familiar with, namely not getting the god damn hint.
These songs all mean different things to me now than they used to. I’ve had them for a while. Sometimes it stings remembering how silly and melodramatic I was not to see the humor in a line like “I know I’m just a joke to you, a nothing, less than that,” when Richard Bush belts it in that hysterical wail, but there was a time when it felt real. It still twists the tuners at the base of my spine and makes me feel delicate and manic, like a wine glass someone is running their finger around the edge of. Do a Risky Business slide in your socks as that solo starts and you can remember what it was like to feel like the burning center of the universe, before you figured out that you weren’t.
Check out more from our Perfect Records series.